When Yale first instituted the Credit/Fail policy in 1975, its creators envisioned a learning environment in which students could have the freedom to experiment academically without fearing a blow to their grade point average. Since then, the policy has experienced a complicated history and an increasingly diminished role. It morphed into Credit/D/Fail in 1993 and underwent another revision in 1996. What has emerged today is a policy that neither serves its original objective nor seems to please anyone with a stake in Yale’s undergraduate offerings.
Any approach to fixing the Credit/D/Fail system must begin with the assertion that no such system would exist in an ideal collegiate world. Instead, students would choose their classes based chiefly on interest and without tremendous thought about their likely final grade. But any approach with a chance for success must also include the admission that — barring a complete overhaul of graduate school admissions processes or job interviewers’ preferences — this ideal will never exist at at Yale. For better or worse, students here are extremely concerned about getting good grades.
The next step, then, is to find the policy alternative that best advances the overall goal of promoting a reasonable amount of academic experimentation. Students tend to pursue the oft-mentioned phenomenon of experimentation in two distinct ways: by taking introductory courses in fields they have have not previously explored and by taking intermediate level courses in fields that interest them but are not connected to their major. The former often occurs in a large lectures; the latter in a smaller lecture or seminar.
The problem with the current system is that the Credit/D/Fail option is only available for a few such courses. Professors have justified this by arguing that having grade-conscious students working only for a “credit” lowers the quality of classes. Their response has increasingly been to not offer their classes Credit/D/Fail.
These professors have a point — there are many students who regard Credit/D/Fail as a means for an essentially free credit. Their solution to the problem, however, is self-defeating. By decreasing the number of classes available Credit/D/Fail, professors only limit the ability to which GPA-concerned students can actually follow their interests. Not surprisingly, the result is a clustering of semi-interested students in the few available Credit/D/Fail classes.
As long as everyone agrees that students are not going to stop worrying about their GPAs, it makes the most sense to offer all uncapped lecture classes Credit/D/Fail. This will eliminate the clustering problem and encourage reasonable experimentation as much as possible. Because seminars can accept a limited number of students and are generally seen as reserved for majors, seminar professors should retain the option to restrict the use of Credit/D/Fail.